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Steve Flink: Davis Cup Defeat No Disgrace For U.S.

3/8/2010 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Davis Cup victories are always tough to negotiate for teams that have the misfortune of competing away from home. The host nations pick a surface that is favorable to their players. They choose the venue. They are supported vociferously by buoyant fans who cheer them on unashamedly. They have a built in and distinct advantage. They love the circumstances, relish the situation.

And so it was for Serbia this past weekend as they took on a gallant American contingent. World No. 2 Novak Djokovic always figured to capture both of his singles matches on the indoor red clay in Belgrade, and he did just that. The Americans knew it would be awfully difficult to topple the Serbian No. 2 Viktor Troicki, and that was unmistakably the case. And while the Americans liked their chances to take the doubles match, even that was an unexpectedly tricky piece of business as Mike Bryan came down with food poisoning and John Isner had to step in to fill that sizeable void. The Americans conducted themselves admirably in every match, lost 3-2 to a superior team, but came away from that experience with a deep sense of pride and a growing belief in their future. Andy Roddick and James Blake may or may not play again for their country down the road, but a changing of the guard is upon us and Isner and Sam Querrey are going to carry their nation ably in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, let’s examine what happened at the Belgrade Arena. It all commenced with the most crucial match of the series between Isner and Troicki on opening day. What a challenge this was for the 6’9” Isner in his Davis Cup debut, but he played remarkably well under the circumstances. The towering American adapted terrifically to the clay, and took a 5-3 opening set lead over his Serbian adversary. Both players knew that their contest would be the key to the U.S.-Serbia outcome, and Isner realized that it was even more of a must win situation for him. Serving for that pivotal first set in the ninth game, he got to 30-15, two points away from taking the set and perhaps seizing control of the match.

Isner came in behind his first serve, set himself up for a backhand down the line first volley that he makes with regularity, but this one he missed. At 30-30, he drove a two-handed backhand long, and then Troicki broke with a clean winner off the backhand down the line. That set went to a tie-break, which Troicki closed out with no hesitation. Serving at 5-4, he released another backhand down the line for a winner, and then his first serve to Isner’s forehand was too much for the big American to handle. The set belonged to Serbia.

An unswerving Isner stuck assiduously to his game plan, serving-and-volleying frequently, looking to unload his scorching flat forehand inside out, mixing up his two-handed backhand drive with excellent use of the sliced backhand to change the pace. He was patient and purposeful, refusing to play too many long rallies but doing so when necessary, going for broke when the openings were there. He worked his way into a second set tie-breaker which he had to win, and found himself serving at 4-5 in that trying sequence. Isner calmly produced an unanswerable first serve down the T, and then released another clutch first serve that set up an easy winner off a short return. Now Isner was up set point, and he converted in style, sending a backhand crosscourt with heavy underspin. That shot landed short and low, and Troicki could not deal with it. The set was Isner’s. He was back in the match.

Yet Troicki bolted out in front at the start of the third set. He led 3-1, 0-40 before Isner served his way out of that precarious corner and held on. But Troicki moved to 4-2. Isner, however, would not let go. He took 12 of the next 13 points. With Troicki serving at 4-5, 30-30, Isner was within two points of a two sets to one lead. But the Serbian found a measure of boldness. He cracked a relatively big serve down the T that Isner could not get back into play, and then Troicki came up with another piercing first serve wide to Isner’s backhand, stifling the American again. It was 5-5. At break point in the eleventh game, Troicki was not intimidated when Isner served-and-volleyed. He drilled a backhand return winner. Serving for the set in the following game, Troicki was at set point when he rolled a delicate and elegant backhand passing shot winner acutely crosscourt.

Now Troicki had the upper hand. He broke in the opening game of the fourth set, kept holding, and served for the match at 5-4. Isner gamely fought off three match points in the tenth game, but then Troicki aced the American with a second serve wide in the deuce court for a fourth chance to seal the verdict. Troicki took that opportunity, forced the American into an error, and put Serbia out in front with a 7-6 (4) 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4 victory. Isner competed fiercely throughout, but surely lamented not putting the clamps down when he had a chance to win the first set.

Now it was time for Querrey to face Djokovic. Perhaps the 6’6” Californian was disappointed and even a little distressed that Isner had not won, but there was no sign of that in the way he comported himself. Querrey was striking the ball cleanly off both sides from the baseline, waiting for opportune moments to accelerate the pace off his stronger forehand side, serving mightily. He took a quick 2-1, 15-40 lead in the first set, and had he broken there, Querrey would have been in a fine position to take command. But Djokovic squirmed out of that jam, held on for 2-2, and then found his range completely. He ran out the set by winning 12 of the last 16 points, looking every inch like the formidable clay court player he is.

Djokovic seemed entirely capable at that moment of dismissing Querrey briskly in straight sets. But as so often is the case, the Serbian suffered an inexplicable lapse. He dropped his serve to trail 2-0 in the second set, losing that game with an ill conceived backhand drop shot approach. Querrey scampered forward and laced a forehand pass crosscourt, forcing Djokovic into a forehand volley mistake. Querrey charged to 3-0, then moved to 4-1, and had a break point for 5-1 that disappeared when the American drove a backhand return long.

Djokovic fought back to 4-4, but Querrey held from 0-30 for 5-4, and had four set points in the tenth game to reach one set all. Querrey never had much of a chance on any of the set points as Djokovic held his nerve. On the last one, Djokovic kicked his second serve to the Querrey backhand and the American erred unnecessarily on his return. On they went to a tie-break, and Djokovic was magnificent in this stretch. He did not miss a first serve, won all five points on his delivery, and he took that sequence 7-4, closing it out with a sparkling forehand crosscourt winner behind Querrey. Djokovic had weathered the storm to build two sets to love lead.

Once more, however, Djokovic wandered into an erratic and indifferent patch, and a composed Querrey took full advantage of it. Querrey got the early break, and then broke again for 5-2 as Djokovic double faulted twice in that game. Despite having a shaky game on his serve at 5-2, Querrey held on to win the third set, and Djokovic was disgruntled to say the least. The Serbian restored order early in the fourth set, gaining the break for 2-0, moving to 3-0 after connecting with a scintillating forehand inside-out winner. Querrey was fighting hard,though, and extending the rallies with good percentage play. Predictably, Djokovic was struck by anxiety when he served for the match at 5-3. He wasted four match points, the last with an uncharacteristic miss off his trademark backhand down the line. On the fifth, Djokovic finished the job with a winning forehand, and Serbia stood tall with a 2-0 lead.

When Mike Bryan contracted food poisoning, Isner stepped in to play the doubles with the lefty Bob Bryan, and the American duo performed as if they had been a long time partnership. Facing Janko Tipsarevic and Nenad Zimonjic, they carved out an impressive four set win. The first set was on serve all the way into the tie-break. In that sequence, Zimonjic, the world No. 1 in doubles, was serving at 6-2 as the Serbians had four set points at their disposal. Zimonjic got a big first serve in but Bryan, playing the deuce court, lunged and made an excellent return, then followed with a penetrating second shot to elicit a volleying error from Zimonjic.

That point was crucial. Isner cracked consecutive aces to close the gap to 6-5, with Tipsarevic serving. Tipsarevic stayed back on his first and second serves all match long. In this instance, he tried to create an opening for Zimonjic, who punched a backhand volley directly at Bryan. Bryan made a reflex volley past Zimonjic into an open space. Now it was 6-6. At 6-7, Bryan proceeded to save a fifth set point for the Americans with a stellar serve-volley combination. The U.S. eventually captured the tie-break 10-8 to grab the set.

At 5-5 in the second set, Bryan became the first player to lose a service game as the Serbians strung together a cluster of excellent returns. Tipsarevic--- surprisingly invulnerable despite staying entirely on serve--- held to make it one set all. The third set followed the precise pattern of the first, with no service breaks at all. In the tie-break which settled that set, Serbia was leading 6-5 with Bryan serving at set point down. But Zimonjic was guilty of a rules infraction which cost his team the point. Serbia had a second set point with Isner serving at 7-8, but the American wiped it away with an excellent second serve that bounced irregularly and did not allow Tipsarevic a play on the return. The Americans prevailed 10-8 in the tie-break. Bryan had traded places with Isner in the third set, moving over to the Ad Court.

At the start of the fourth, the Americans went back to their original alignment, with Bryan back in the deuce court. That seemed to work. They broke Zimonjic twice in winning the set, winning the match 7-6 (8), 5-7, 7-6 (8), 6-3. For Bryan to play that well without his twin brother, and for Isner to accept the last minute responsibility and perform so competently, was remarkable. They had kept the American hopes alive. They had saved five set points in the first set tie-break and two more in the third set tie-break. That was no mean feat.

And so it was up to Isner to confront a rested Djokovic on Sunday, knowing full well what he was up against. As well as he had acquitted himself against Troicki, Isner had no choice but to take his game up another notch or two against Djokovic. And in the early stages, Djokovic seemed to be reading Isner’s crackling serve quite well. At 2-3, Djokovic reached break point, but Isner advanced to the net behind his devastating forehand, and put away a smash off a short lob. He climbed back to 3-3. At 4-5, Isner was in danger again, down 15-40, double set point. He put away another overhead to save the first, and Djokovic surprisingly missed a second serve return off the backhand on the second.

Although Isner held on for 5-5, he could not fend off Djokovic. Serving at 5-6, 30-30, Isner came in for a backhand volley crosscourt but the Serbian answered with a superb backhand pass crosscourt. At 30-40, Isner approached behind a deep crosscourt forehand, but Djokovic unleashed a spectacular forehand pass crosscourt, and the set belonged to him. He had momentum, confidence, and swagger, but not for long.

Djokovic has altered his service motion considerably as of late. He has virtually eliminated the back scratch, he hardly bends his elbow, and the precision and fluidity he had in the past is gone for the moment. In losing his serve to start the second set, an overwrought Djokovic broke a racket. Isner was serving more ferociously by now and he sailed to 5-3 before breaking again to tuck away the set. It was one set all. At 2-2, 30-40, Isner double faulted long. Djokovic held in the following game from 15-40 with cool authority. Serving at 3-5 and set point down, Isner double faulted long again. Djokovic was ascendant once more, one set away from putting Serbia into the World Group quarterfinals, seemingly ready to distance himself from Isner on this occasion.

Or was he? Isner simply wasn’t ready to concede a thing. Through the fourth set, both men were holding with consummate ease. Isner was finding the corners and confounding Djokovic with his varying locations. Djokovic was backing up his delivery so well that the American was hopelessly outclassed from the baseline. On their way to a tie-break, Djokovic conceded three points in six service games, winning 24 of 27 points. Isner did not face a break point. In the tie-break, Isner was serving at 1-0. He serve-volleyed and made a deft half-volley drop shot off the forehand. Djokovic chased it down but got there too late. In utter frustration, he whacked a ball into the stands and was assessed a point penalty, making the score 3-0 for Isner.

Isner was serving at 6-4 when Djokovic caught him off guard with an inside-out backhand return that clipped the baseline. Djokovic served his way to 6-6, two points from the triumph. At 6-6, he was too tame on an inside-out forehand approach, leaving Isner too much room for the backhand pass up the line. The American drove the fall confidently into a wide open space. At 7-6, he served-and-volleyed, playing the first volley crosscourt with good depth. Djokovic went for the passing shot down the line off the backhand, but missed it narrowly wide. Improbably, Isner had taken himself into a fifth set on his worst surface against the second best player in the game.

Yet there was much work left to be done. Serving at 0-1 in the fifth, leading 40-15, Djokovic lost his rhythm on his delivery thoroughly, double faulting twice to make the score deuce. But he managed to hold on for 1-1. At 1-2, Djokovic held at love with two aces, and then broke Isner in the fifth game. For the third time in the match at break point down, Isner double faulted, this one going wide in the Ad Court.

Djokovic surged to 4-2, then 5-3. Isner was serving to stay in the match, serving to keep his nation alive, fighting with every fiber in his being to find a way to get the win. He fell behind 30-40, but saved that match point emphatically with a gutsy inside-out forehand winner. Down match point for the second time, he sent out a service winner wide to the forehand. Djokovic was clearly looking to end it all here, to avoid serving for the match, to put the finishing touches on a hard fought battle he felt he should win. But on the third match point at 3-5, he was very unlucky. Djokovic made a stupendous return off a big first serve, and soon worked his way up to the net behind a backhand slice crosscourt approach. Isner’s backhand passing shot clipped the net cord and fell over near the sideline. Djokovic could only slice his backhand down the line, but Isner anticipated that shot beautifully and cut across the court for a stupendous forehand drive volley winner well out of Djokovic’s reach.

Isner held on for 4-5. Djokovic did indeed have to serve for the match, and that was a complicated task. The Serbian got to 40-30, earning a fourth match point. He netted a backhand down the line, advertising his nerves in the process. Quickly Djokovic got to match point for the fifth time, but Isner’s return hit the baseline and he came in. Djokovic netted a backhand pass. Djokovic was gesticulating wildly, looking upward as if in prayer, proving that of all the top players no one has less emotional equilibrium. He was carrying the expectations of a nation on his shoulders, and one could sympathize with his plight,  but the fact remained that Djokovic’s conduct was way over the top.

But soon the ordeal was over. Djokovic approached on the Isner backhand, and the American’s attempted pass was a weary response into the net. Now at match point for the sixth and final time, Djokovic sent his first serve to the forehand of Isner. Isner drove his return into the net. Serbia had toppled the U.S., but not without an awful lot of angst and turmoil. Djokovic had held back an obstinate Isner 7-5, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-4. Querrey managed to win the meaningless final match 7-5, 6-2 over Troicki, but he took his assignment seriously and got the win deservedly.

I have no doubt that both Isner and Querrey will take a lot away from their experience in Belgrade, especially Isner. The way I see it, Querrey is steadily improving and there are very few holes left in his game. He will have a big year in 2010. But Isner is making even larger strides, improving by leaps and bounds, gaining conviction every time he steps on the court these days. He looks a lot fitter than he did at the U.S. Open last year. He keeps upping the ante, raising the stakes, proving that he believes he belongs out there with the very best players in the world. Before this year is out, he is going to cut down some big men with larger reputations than his own. Isner--- now among the three or four most devastatingly potent servers in the sport--- is heading inexorably toward the top ten in the world. Querrey won’t be that far behind his countryman.

Despite their setback in Serbia, Isner and Querrey are on their way, reinvigorating American tennis, creating excitement all through their country, making believers out of a growing legion of fans across their nation. 

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